Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

What the People Want: Popular Support for Catholic Reform in the Veneto

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

What the People Want: Popular Support for Catholic Reform in the Veneto

Article excerpt

The reforms of Catholicism implemented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had widespread and significant effects on the lives of early-modern Catholics, but in most cases we know very little about how non-elites reacted to these changes.* 1 Records produced in rural parishes are rare, whereas the documentation produced by reforming bishops generally has little to say about the experiences of rural laypeople. Typical visitation records provide the bishop's impression of the church and other parochial structures, sometimes an estimation of the priest's abilities, and occasionally a conversation with one or more members of the clergy about their church and flock, observed over a very short time span.2 It is therefore difficult to gauge what parishioners thought of the reforms the Catholic Church hoped to enforce.

Several historians of Catholic Reform have used what little evidence is available to demonstrate that reform was a negotiated process, in which the bishop presented and incentivized what he wanted to see and, sometimes in more or less overt ways, the parochial community chose what they were willing to do and what they preferred to ignore.3 Evidence of this negotiation can be found either in the occasional parish records or, more commonly, in the bishop's next visitation, when he discovered which changes had or had not persisted. But with these cases, it is nearly impossible to argue how the laity felt about most of these reforms; when they cooperated with the bishop, was it because they felt coerced or because they truly wanted that particular change? To get a sense of lay enthusiasm for reform, we must look at particular alterations to devotional practices, those that were both voluntary and quotidian. During the early-modern period, particularly after the Council of Trent, there was a renewal of corporate and public religious devotions, tied to an understanding of the sacred as something immanent and palpable, sometimes described as baroque Catholicism. Whereas Protestants typically promoted greater interiority and personal devotion, the Catholic Church "emphasized community in Christ through charity and collective devotions," encouraging laypeople to participate in voluntary activities like donating alms, assisting and attending catechism classes, sponsoring altars, and joining confraternities.4 When ordinary laypeople gave their time and money to participate in or fund particular 2 3 4 devotions, they demonstrated support and even passion for certain elements of Catholic Reform, helping baroque Catholicism to flourish.

As Simon Ditchfield has argued, the historiography of Catholic Reform needs to focus on "local knowledge" rather than large-scale arguments about confessionalization or control.5 His call for more anthropological methods and for abandoning the idea that power is a simple binary-that in a struggle between center and periphery, the latter is weakened while the former grows stronger-requires historians of Catholic Reform (and of center-periphery connections in early-modern Europe more broadly) to have a nuanced understanding of power relations and look closely not only at cities, as many have done, but also at rural areas.6 By combining Ditchfield's proposed method with a focus on voluntary devotional activities, historians can gain a better understanding of the reality of Catholic Reform as implemented on the ground as well as trace lay enthusiasm for early-modern Catholicism, both traditional and reformed. Laypeople participated in and spoke up about the devotions they wanted while quietly resisting those they did not.

Within a decade after the end of the Council of Trent (1545-63), Padua had its first reform-minded bishop, Niccolò Ormaneto, who had previously served under Carlo Borromeo. He was bishop from 1570 to 1577 and was the first to attempt Tridentine Reform in Padua.7 His term was short, however, and his pastoral visitation records only cover 1571- 72.8 His records are not overly detailed, but they are better than those kept by pre-Tridentine bishops. …

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